Reforms Still Likely to Thwart Valls Presidential Run

Manuel Valls’ reforms are unpopular on the left. But if they succeed it will be François Hollande who benefits.

French prime minister Manuel Valls appears at a Socialist Party conference in Paris, February 1
French prime minister Manuel Valls appears at a Socialist Party conference in Paris, February 1 (PS/Mathieu Delmestre)

Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, is making efforts to unify his party but the very reforms that make him a divisive figure on the left are still likely to stop him from seeking the Socialists’ presidential nomination.

There is little doubt that Valls would be a stronger contender in the 2017 election than the incumbent, François Hollande. Polls show he would decisively beat the Front national‘s Marine Le Pen in a theoretical runoff and would come close to defeating Nicolas Sarkozy, the conservative former president.

Hollande, by contrast, would lose against both, if he even made it into the second voting round.

Valls’ problem is his own party. Many on the left see his program of lower business taxes, competition in intercity transport, weaker labor protections and allowing stores to open on more Sundays as a betrayal of the French social model.

Politico reports that Valls is trying to get back into favor with the Socialists, telling a party convention on Sunday that liberalization is not an end in itself but rather a means to advance the “values” of the left.

Once the torchbearer of reform, the prime minister seemed eager to seek compromise between the centrist and left wings of his party. Hence his attempt to describe his past policy as fully in line with the traditional Socialist mantra.

Left-wing voters are ahead of the party. A poll published in Sunday’s Journal du Dimanche showed 35 percent would rather Valls ran in 2017 against 22 percent who want to stick with Hollande.

Yet Valls’ reform effort works against him in two ways, according to Politico.

If it pays off, and France finally sees unemployment go down in the fourth year of Hollande’s presidency, the incumbent would be the main beneficiary and more likely to stand for a second term.

If, on the other hand, Valls wants to have a chance at preempting another Hollande run, he may want to slow down his program and tack to the left so the economy doesn’t dramatically improve and the party stays united. But that also risks “diluting the identity he has sought to build as a bold reformist,” potentially weakening his appeal to moderate voters.

In what might be a telling sign, Valls’ government is delaying long-overdue labor reforms by commissioning a bureaucratic study into the matter.

The Atlantic Sentinel has argued that the Socialists are unlikely to jettison Hollande before the next election, if only because most aren’t ready yet to accept the economic reality that Valls represents.

The price will likely be opposition, the place the Socialists spent twenty years before Hollande unseated Sarkozy in 2012.

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